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Brizard promises fixes for Chicago schools

The new Chicago Public Schools chief said Wednesday he makes no excuses for wanting to overhaul public education and called himself a “completely effective” leader during his contentious three-year tenure in Rochester.

Jean-Claude Brizard, who worked for over two decades in New York City schools before taking the helm in Rochester in 2008, said during a sometimes testy news conference that he understands large school systems and “how you move a battleship and turn it around quite effectively.”

Without elaborating on his plans, Brizard said: “Chicago is poised to make some wonderful gains. You cannot have progress without things moving and changing.”

Chicago Mayor-elect Rahm Emanuel said Monday he chose Brizard because Brizard was unafraid of making tough choices. Emanuel wants to remake Chicago’s schools, including crusading for reforms to improve student learning and teacher quality.

Brizard will leave behind an uneasy relationship with the Rochester teachers union, whose members recently gave him a resounding vote of no confidence. Union leader Adam Urbanski said Brizard promoted policies that teachers found unpalatable, such as promoting charter schools while wanting to close poorly performing public schools.

While Brizard said he felt pangs of guilt about leaving the 34,000-student Rochester system, he denied that growing tension with the union was a factor in his departure. “It’s not about bailing whatsoever — if I was, I wouldn’t be looking for a more difficult assignment,” he said.

“I’ve always been pro-teacher … but you also have to weigh the work versus the person,” he added. “You don’t want to be a block or barrier to what needs to be done. We’re talking about children and their future. That has to be the focus of everything we do. So you can’t have one person or a team of people being in the way.”

Brizard, a 47-year-old native of Haiti, saw himself not only as “a fantastic fit” for Rochester but “I felt I was completely effective” in improving student achievement in the district “much faster than almost anyone else in America in this time span.”

“I am a reformer,” he said. “I make no excuses for the challenges we face and the resistance that comes when you take the steps necessary to produce dramatic and necessary change. … I want to celebrate these successes because ours is a fight to save this generation.”

Brizard’s letter of resignation said he would leave the Rochester schools at the end of the school year. The Chicago Board of Education will still need to formally approve his appointment.